Seductive St. John

On the least developed of the US Virgin Islands, natural beauty reigns, and we are its subjects.

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Surrounded by the haunting ruins of Annaberg Plantation on the island of St. John sits a tiny cookhouse. It was built with ballast bricks from sailing ships and sealed with a mix of mortar, milk and molasses. Dragonflies dart about, wings glistening in the sun; 20 feet away, an immense, red-flowered flamboyant tree—a royal poinciana—offers shade.

The cookhouse roof and cool white paint are concessions to modern times. But inside, a grandmotherly West Indian woman makes tasty “dumb bread” the old-fashioned way. There are no measuring cups. A dash of  “dis and dat” and years of dexterity quickly bring the flour,
shortening and baking powder together into a soft, pliable dough. She pinches off pieces, shapes them into flattened balls, pricks the tops with a fork and fits them snugly into the bottom of a cast-iron pot over a coal-burning stove.

She covers the pot with a sheet of metal and heaps coals on top. Twenty minutes later, out come deliciously crusty breads, as tempting and nourishing today as they were 150 years ago.

Nature’s in charge
The cookhouse is the only building that remains of Annaberg Plantation, making it one of the few manmade attractions on this smallest and most pristine of the US Virgin Islands. Fifty feet away, papaya, bananas, soursop, okra and root crops grow. These gardens are part man’s doing, part Nature’s. The wonder of St. John is that Nature still holds the cards here—just the way the locals like it.

Reachable only by ferry, St. John is 27 square miles of mountainous jungle, boasting some of the most exotic flora and fauna in the Caribbean. Because St. John is a US territory, you don’t
need a passport to enjoy this gentle, slow-paced, eco-friendly destination.

Traffic tie-ups tend to occur only when goats on the road refuse to move.It’s no accident that much of St. John remains unspoiled. For that, ironically, we can thank the Rockefeller oil fortune. In the 1950s, Laurance Rockefeller donated 5,000 acres to create the US Virgin Islands National Park, where Annaberg is found. In 1962, another 5,650 acres of submerged land, including bays and coral reefs, were added to the park.

Today, three miles west of Annaberg is Trunk Bay, a snorkeler’s paradise. The Trunk Bay underwater trail starts only yards from shore. Fifteen underwater plaques tell of marine life that abounds. Rainbows of parrotfish, snappers, damselfish, squirrelfish and butterfly fish appear as if on cue. Lacy sea fans, sea whips, sea plumes and other delicate corals undulate to the rhythm of the undersea current.

Solar-powered “hotel”
True ecotourism, which treats the environment gently, got its start here in 1976 when Stanley Selengut, a New York civil engineer, opened the Maho Bay Camps. The camps feature 114 wind- and solar-powered tent/cottages perched almost imperceptibly on the lush hillsides above Maho Bay. Each 16×16-foot unit, reached through a thoroughfare of boardwalks, has a bedroom with two twin beds, a living room with a pull-out sofa, a simple kitchen with a propane stove and cooler chest, and a sun porch. Canvas walls and screened windows let the trade winds blow through.

Central bathhouses have composting toilets and solar-heated showers, and an open-air restaurant serves a vegetarian selection each night. There’s a beachfront water sports center, a grocery and an arts center that displays works made from recycled materials.

The determination to protect the island’s natural beauty has influenced all aspects of life here, including how food is raised. In a fertile valley on St. John’s east end, Josephine and Hugo Roller operate the solar-powered Coral Bay Organic Farm and Coral Bay Garden Center. A native of the Philippines who raised rubber, cocoa and coconut in Malaysia before coming to St. John, Josephine, who has established herself as one of the island’s agricultural experts, teaches organic farming.

“I spent most of my career in mechanized agriculture, farming only one crop in one place,” she explains. “Not anymore.” Today, Josephine and Hugo raise 98 species of plants on 18 lush acres. “We grow over 30 different types of greens, plus  herbs, tomatoes, hot peppers and tropical fruits.” Exotic and enticing greens on the farm include red mustard, curly kale, red spinach, tatsoi (mustard spinach) and kyona (Japanese spinach). Her micro-greens find their way into many local eateries. The farm is open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Monday.

While there, you can buy individual plants for your own sunroom. Taking a little something of St. John home will help ward off winter chills. It will also remind you, each day, of a place where natural beauty reigns, and the people are its subjects.

Vegetarian St. John
The Stone Terrace Executive chef Aaron Willis offers a different vegetarian plate each night. “I have to make sure my father, a longtime vegetarian, always gets something he likes.” Dad needn’t worry. We enjoyed an artichoke risotto with micro-greens accented by truffle oil, and
a vegetable ragout with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and wild trumpet and enoki mushrooms.

Tage Chef Ted Robinson, who spent several years as a vegan, serves vegetarian dishes as nightly specials and on request. Our first-course salad was delicious: baby arugula, fennel and sliced pear tossed in a champagne vinaigrette and topped with a potato crisp.

The Inn at Tamarind Court Tuesday is Vegetarian Night at this inn south of Cruz Bay. We had a delicious vegetable and tofu Pad Thai but could have chosen baby artichokes with stuffed spinach, goat cheese, fresh herbs and garlic, or bow tie pasta with pesto, mushrooms and vegetables.

Maho Bay On our last day, we ate breakfast at Maho—and wished we had done so sooner. Choices included a vegetable frittata, carrot cake pancakes, tofu scramble, huevos rancheros and the Mug of Love: homemade granola with yogurt and fresh strawberries. 

Getting There
American, US Airways and Delta fly direct to St. Thomas from New York and Miami. From the airport, take a 15-minute cab ride to Charlotte Amalie, where ferries leave for St. John six times a day, or take a 45-minute cab ride to Red Hook, where ferries run hourly. Trips cost $13–$16
total and take about an hour.

For more information, contact The Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, Henry Samuel St., Cruz Bay, St. John 00830.
Tel: 340-76-6450 or 800-372-USVI.
Or visit

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